Using Books to Meet the Social and Emotional Needs of Gifted Students

By Judith Wynn Halsted.

As readers of this newsletter are acutely aware, even gifted children whose intellectual needs are adequately met have other needs, as well. The very existence of SENG is a response to the recognition that our gifted children often face social and emotional challenges that differ from those of their classmates. They need to understand and learn to cope with their differences – and ideally, they will learn to thrive because of them.

In broad outline, as they grow, gifted children must

· recognize and accept that their level of intellectual or artistic ability is not shared by everyone–that they are, indeed, different;

· understand that they may need more time alone than other children do (and be supported by adults who understand this, too);

· learn to build relationships with other people, many of whom do not share their abilities and interests;

· learn how to use their abilities well, even when doing so sets them apart from many others; and

· learn to take responsibility for finding ways to satisfy their intellectual curiosity and to express their creativity.

In addition, depending on each child’s nature and personality, he or she may need to address more specific issues, such as creativity, intensity, introversion, a high level of moral concerns, perfectionism, and sensitivity, among others. This is a tall order, and gifted children and adolescents need the support of adults–parents as well as teachers–who understand, accept, and are able to help them meet the social and emotional challenges they face simply because they are gifted.

Parents who need background information will find helpful resources online, in organizations like SENG, and in the many books published in the last several years related to various aspects of growing up gifted. When they have acquired an understanding of the issues and are ready to step in with a practical approach to helping their child, these parents can turn to books again–this time, to children’s books.

When an adult and child both read a book in which the characters deal with some of the same issues the child is facing, they are preparing for a meaningful discussion that might not happen otherwise. After all, the characters in books are separate from the child–it is often easier for a child to talk about the problems of a fictional character than about her own problems. Reading and then discussing books with children is an easy, readily available, inexpensive, and very pleasant way of helping children think and talk about the situations they face–a non-threatening approach, because they are talking about someone else.

This kind of discussion may take place in a school setting, through a pull-out gifted program, or with a small group in a regular classroom. It requires three components: a teacher or librarian to make it happen, enough copies of a selected book for each child in the group, and time in the schedule for the group to meet–preferably with a modicum of privacy–for discussion. The program is similar to a Junior Great Books™ discussion group, but the books and the questions are chosen specifically for the gifted children who have been selected to join the group, with their social and emotional characteristics in mind.

Whether or not such a program is available at school, parents can offer a more personalized version of the same opportunity at home. Home schooling parents certainly can arrange to fit reading and discussing books into the curriculum. It is a natural way of communicating with children, especially for parents who love to read. And parents as well as teachers can organize boys’ or girls’ groups to talk about books.

The process involves

· selecting an appropriate book,

· reading the book and developing questions,

· introducing the book to the child, and after the child has read it,

· enjoying an open-ended discussion.

Selecting appropriate books.

First, books chosen for discussion with gifted children should be well-written and intellectually challenging. The language should stretch their vocabulary and reflect the time or place in which the story is set, offering them a broader experience with language than they find in their daily lives. In some of their books, plots should be unresolved, causing readers to consider alternative possibilities and choices. Books for these readers should make good use of literary devices such as metaphor, flashbacks, and alternating narrators. Humor should be on a spontaneous, creative level.

In addition, books selected for discussion of social and emotional needs will have characters who are experiencing some of the same issues as the child who will read them: making friends, establishing an identity, feeling alone or different, standing up for a conviction, intensity, perfectionism, or other characteristics of gifted children and adults.

Of course, not everything a gifted child reads has to be this serious; escape reading is useful and valid when we recognize it for what it is and know when and why we are choosing it. But lightweight reading will not bear the weight of the kind of discussion we are proposing here.